Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Thursday, February 2, 2012

How To Get A Book Deal

I would like to sincerely apologise for the short notice of an interruption in scheduling, but this will be my last post for a week or two. Unfortunately, there are two books that need to be written, and they're not, because someone is p-r-o-c-r-a-s-t-i-n-a-t-i-n-g. (Who said that?) I would offer the argument that I'm renovating. But there's no excuses for tardiness, so off I march to the literary coal mine again.

But while I'm away, knee-deep in archives and cross-checking quotes, I'd like to leave you all with a little inspiration. Namely, the idea that you, too, can get a book deal. Truly. It's not as difficult as you think. I've had 18 published. And I'm far from being Alain de Botton. At the recent ALT summit, Design Sponge's Grace Bonney, Chronicle Books editor Kate Woodrow and several others spoke on a packed-out session called From Blog To Book. If you're interested, Chronicle Books has posted some info in its Storify blog – Many of the pointers were fairly imperative – such as doing your research into the competition; making sure your book has a point of difference; researching publishers' list to find the right publisher for your project; pitching it in 10 words or less, and so on. These are valuable tips. But I thought it might be helpful if I showed you how I got a heel in the door.

So here, for those who are interested, are some of the things that helped me. And of course if you have any questions, please just email me. I'm always, always happy to help.

{Image of Osa watching NYC mayor Fiorello LaGuardia sign a giant mock-up of her 1940 book I Married Adventure via NYT Pictures}

1. NEVER, EVER, EVER GIVE UP. Ben Slbermann, the creator of Pinterest recently said: “People succeed because they don’t stop". He could have been paraphrasing Churchill. Never give up. If you really want a book deal, you WILL make it happen.

Case in point. Years ago, I had an idea for a book on country houses, but nobody wanted to publish it. Finally, one publisher agreed to see me. Problem was, she was in Sydney. And she was about to go on her first holiday in 10 years. "You have 15 minutes," she said. So I took the day off work, flew to Sydney and got a taxi to the North Shore. I didn't realise it but the driver dropped me off a kilometre short of the location. So I hailed a hatchback, thrust $20 in the young driver's face and pleaded for him to take me up the road. He did. I walked in, made the pitch in a somewhat breathless voice, and told the story of the taxi as an ice-breaker. She laughed. I walked out with a two-book deal ten minutes later. The lovely guy was still waiting in the car park. I gave him $40. And flew back to Melbourne two hours later, still shaking from nerves. That was my harrowing start to this new career. My advice: Do whatever you have to do to get the deal done.

2. FIND A REALLY, REALLY GOOD IDEA. Don't copy what others are doing. The publishers will have already seen 100 proposals like it. Remember when Tuscany memoirs were all the trend? (Under The Tuscan Sun) And then tart-noir novels? (Adventures of a London Call Girl.) And then 'list' books with elegantly simple covers? (Schott's) And schnovels? (Self-help books disguised as novels.) Not to mention Expat Memoirs. (Eat Pray Love) And books about maps. And Darwin. And now Diana Vreeland... Step ahead of the curve. Study bestseller lists, but try to think up something different. Something innovative. Something that's never been done before. (I predict that books showing garden designs and plans will be coming back in. But maybe that's just wishful thinking...)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Beautiful book, with a beautiful name.  The Architecture of Happiness. Always love Alain de Botton's book titles. 
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet. Ingenious. 
The Chemistry of Tears. Peter Carey's latest.
Etcetera. Sibella Court's springboard to a great publishing/design career. I Married Adventure. No wonder it sold 500,000 copies in the first year.

3. TRY NOT TO USE THE 'MEET PITCH'.  As in: "XXX book is The Da Vinci Code meets The Sex Diaries". Really. Try to think of 20 other words to describe your story. 20. You should be able to do that.

4. PREPARE YOUR PROPOSAL WITH THE SAME METICULOUS ATTENTION TO DETAIL THAT YOU'D DO IF YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE ABOUT TO WIN AN OSCAR. See that one-page synopsis you've done? Now elaborate. I usually do a short synopsis and a two-page one. Plus a rationale (why it will sell), a description of market competition and why this book is different, a description of potential readership, marketing ideas, a bio (add quirky things – they'll give the pitch personality), a full table of contents, a completed first chapter (sometimes three chapters) and any ideas for design/style. 

5. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. Writing is difficult enough. Don't make it harder by tackling a strange subject. Write about what you love. It will make your writing life easier.

My first book idea was a novel set in the world of magazines. But then Bridget Jones came out. And (much later) The Devil Wears Prada. I couldn't compete, nor did I want to. So I shelved it. And decided to write about something I really knew: London and Paris. Over 3 months I wrote an outline of a memoir. I pitched it to Kay Scarlett at Murdoch Books. Amazingly, she accepted. It sold out in the first 3 weeks. No one was more surprised than I was. But it just showed: Write what you know.

6. DON'T ALWAYS TARGET THE BIG PUBLISHERS. India Hicks got her publishing start with a small-ish London company, Pavillion. I don't know how many times this book has now been reprinted.

7. OFFER IDEAS FOR DESIGN, AND EVEN JACKETS, WITH YOUR PITCH. If you're creative, do some mock ups. If not, find a friend who can. Anything that shows the commissioning editor or Acquisitions Committee what your idea will look like will help.{Image via Book City Jackets and aren't these jacket beautiful?} 

8. MOCK UP AS MUCH AS YOU CAN TO ILLUSTRATE THE IDEA. Here are two pages from a book I pitched to a publisher several years ago. You don't even need to use final text. Just throw some jabberwocky copy in. It's the 'look' they're interested in. I use InDesign, but you can use any medium.

9. FIND SOMEONE TO SEND YOUR PROPOSAL TO. Don't just send it into the receptionist. Find  an editor. One tip is to look at books you like and see who published/edited them.

10. DON'T WORRY ABOUT AN AGENT UNLESS YOU'RE OFFERED A MOTZA ADVANCE. I've never had an agent. I would have made more money if I had but then they would have taken 20 per cent. Use a lawyer who specialises in contracts. They'll charge you $600+ or so, but it's still cheaper than an agent. In saying this, lots of authors like having an agent to do all the work.

PS Apologies to those followers who have been getting these posts emailed to them twice. It's a glitch and I'm trying to rectify it now. I do hope you'll bear with me.


  1. Hi Janelle, best of luck with the research - we'll miss you and look forward to seeing more gorgeous blogs when you return, Cheers, Exx

  2. Do you know Janelle, this is the third post in a week of yours that I have printed out. I think that tells you something...a new book is most definitely in order. Write well my friend and thanks for all the inspiration you have sent my way this week. I loved exploring Chiswick today via your notes. :)

    Jeanne xx

  3. Thanks E. I'm grateful, as always, for your kindness.

    And thank you for the 'thank you' Jeanne. So pleased you like Chiswick. It's an intriguing little village, isn't it? Apparently it's "The New South Kensington" as a place to live (although I hate those kinds of comparisons). And it's not far from Richmond and Kew, two other villages I love exploring. So envious that you're in London! XX

  4. Do you have a set amount of words that you commit to writing each day? Good luck, with the tip tip tapping!

  5. Hi Tabitha, No word count per day, unlike Hemingway. It's just a matter of trying to reach 80,000 words (per book). The most difficult part is finding the discipline to sit down and do it when everyone else is out enjoying summer! Janelle

  6. Good luck writing. In the meantime, I will catch up with all your earlier posts!
    Thrilled to see that you have a copy of "Style" by Kate Spade, it is a surprising book, full of wonderful insight and references.

  7. Oh dear, withdrawal symptoms already! What am I going to do without some Janelle to read each day?!
    Compensation is I will have two more books, to add to my current ones, in due time. I wonder where you will take me this time.
    Good luck with pushing aside the procrastination and the writing and I await your return.~Julienne

  8. So good I'd read it twice...! Or more. Thank you for all the advice. Good luck with the work thing. I find work such an unpleasant distraction.

    By the way we lived in Kew village for three years and Richmond Hill before that - just got sidetracked by the chiswick chat above....!

  9. So lovely of you to share these insights into the world of writing. Thank-you Janelle. I suspect most bloggers have a book lurking in them somewhere.
    Best wishes with the deadlines.

  10. Apparently you need discipline & dedication to write a book. My year 5 primary school report card specifically states 'Millie will not succeed in life while she remains so easily distracted.' Talk about putting the mockers on my literary career before it even began! What a gem you are sharing all this fabulous knowledge & advice so willingly with your avid fans. Your generosity is fast elevating you to legendary bloggie status.
    Millie xx

  11. Dear Janelle
    Thank you for such a helpful post, I wish I'd discovered your blog earlier. I recently finished writing a book for young adults and have done just what you've advised against: sent it off to two different literary agents. One has already sent a very pleasant and kind refusal encouraging me to keep trying with other agents because selection is "so subjective", the other I haven't heard from yet. Also, have now realised from you the importance of doing a really good pitch. Will take your advice for the future as I already have ideas for a sequel to the story and would like to keep trying. Best wishes, Pamela


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